I’ve written a lot about growing up abroad and being a third culture kid, but I’ve always skimmed over another topic that I think a lot about-being mixed race. My British father met my Malaysian mother in the late 60’s, in Singapore. He was stationed there with the RAF, and she was sent there by her grandfather to escape the Chinese/Malay race riots that were threatening Malaysia. By the early 80’s, I was born and they were settled in Brunei.
Where I grew up there were plenty of other kids with mixed parentage just like me growing up in Brunei, so I never felt out of place or different. It wasn’t until I was eleven, when for a brief time my family lived in Staffordshire, that I realised (more like I was made to feel like I was) different.
We moved to a small village in the Staffordshire country side. I remember it was cold, grey, and that for the first time in my life, I was in a school uniform and being sent to the local high school. Life in Brunei had been very sheltered. Everyone was friendly and kind and my old school was culturally diverse and a pillar of the expat community.
So, there I was on my first day. A little kid small for her age, with a deep sun tan and an awkward Transatlantic accent. It was a complete culture shock to suddenly be at an enormous new school with hundreds of students. I remember what a shock it was to go to the loo and find older girls smoking by the sinks, having to say ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’ to my teachers, that all the other girls were wearing pleated skirts to my A-line one, and that there was this thing called ‘gym knickers’. Just like my school uniform, my once colourful world was just grey, grey, grey. I never said out loud that I hated it, but I’m pretty sure that I did.
I remember very clearly one afternoon, in the changing room after a P.E lesson, when one girl said to me “I would kill for your skin colour” and that was the very first time I was ever made to feel different. It was not said out of malice or bitchiness- but it did make me suddenly self conscious that I did not look like the rest of my classmates. Or even anyone else at the school. When you’re a kid, especially one starting high school, the last thing you want is to appear ‘different’.
I returned to Brunei and my old school a few months later, but it was this period there, living in that town, that opened my eyes to issues and ideas of race.
One of the more tedious questions I would get growing up was “Pandai cakap Melayu?” (“can you speak Malay?”) and depending on my mood, I’d say no, or just a little bit, reluctant to let strangers judge just how Malay I was. My mum probably got bored of it too- I remember one time, at a food market in Kuala Lumpur, she told everyone that we were Bosnian orphans she had adopted.
On the other scale, instead of being judged if I was ‘Malay’ enough, I occasionally had it pointed out that I was too Malaysian. When having lunch with a friend and her mother one day after school, they laughed that I was holding my fork in a Malay way (what even is that? I’m pretty sure I was holding it the ‘regular’ way) A teacher once called me a ‘mongrel’ without realising that it was actually a pretty shitty word to describe someone like me.
I was the unwilling piggy in the middle of everyone’s perceptions on who I ought to be.
I went to a London university- so the whole culturally diverse theme I was used to continued. In England, being mixed race tends to describe someone with one black parent and one white. As I listened to my mixed race friend’s stories about growing up, similar themes stood out- the moments that made you realise you are seen as ‘different’, when someone tries to suss out how ‘black’ or ‘white’ you are- these are all shared experiences that I think anyone of a mixed race background can understand.
I never felt ‘rejected’ over my own racial identity. From my paternal grandfather who fought in World War 2, to my maternal great grandfather who ran a martial arts school-I have some serious pride over both of my heritages.
Some posts I’ve really enjoyed reading about race and identity:
– This Huffington Post article about the struggles of being mixed race
– Ralph talks about being okay in his own skin
– This article on Into the Gloss in which Alyssa Reader beautifully says ““Sure, it gets annoying to answer the question What are you?”—but at the same time, when they ask, we’re given the opportunity to introduce people to a new cultural standard—one in which you, rather than your background, define what’s beautiful”